Yoon has found a way to steer every conversation to a mutt that she supposedly trapped in a deep alley between two houses. Jinhee keeps her head nodding at an agreeable pace, a skill she’s honed for their Korean History teacher who raves about nuisance value every lesson. Lilacs looming over the benches they occupy, Yoon chatters away: “I’ll bring it water and food, though it barked every time I walked by. I’ve told you I was nearly bitten once, right? Doesn’t mean it deserves to starve, though.”
“The one that used to chase you around the neighborhood?”
“It has a proper name. Happy.”
Jinhee almost blurts, a most generic name for another tall lie of yours, but manages to cut it short. “Well, shall we?” Yoon asks, standing up, finally bored of the one-sided conversation. Jinhee soon falls in step with her friend.
As they make their way downhill, the town trembles with the howl of a civil defense drill. “Our ancestors used to hire professionally grieving women to make the wailing louder at the funeral,” Jinhee’s older brother once told her. In the presence of spectators, the appearance of grief outweighs the fact of it—and to Jinhee, laboring grief into appearance that way felt like no less an incomprehensible nuisance, a ruse, than the siren that leads to nothing.
When they reach the dirt road, Jinhee hesitates for a moment but decides not to tell Yoon that she’s moving to another province in two weeks. It’s probably that her nomadic life has been like a kite attached to nothing but her military officer father for so long, she can no longer stand the ceremony of farewell. It’s probably that Yoon has been such a yarn spinner for the last two years, with stories about her ancestry and the beatings, the ugly fights between her parents, who proved to be nothing but kind in person. Whatever the reason, Jinhee holds her tongue, and doesn’t notice the slight limp with which her friend walks away.
The wail of a civil defense drill breaks again into their Korean History class a week later. When Mr. Sung declares a three-minute recess of silence, one of the students ventures to ask: “Don’t we have to go hide in bunkers or something?”
As the siren quiets down, Mr. Sung confronts the class and says with exasperation: “Listen, you all. Don’t you ever think those pathetic bunkers will protect you from a 21st century war. If war breaks out, we die. And better die learning something new.”
None of them knows that, thirteen years later, when Mr. Sung’s daughter is going to that very same middle school, students will sit in class throughout half an earthquake, the worst to occur on the Korean peninsula in the 21st century; by early afternoon, part of the main building will have collapsed with students still inside, and the press, omitting that there’s no casualty, will write exclusively about the incompetent school authorities, leading to the resignation of the principal, who turns out to have been at a conference, two provinces away, at the time of the earthquake.
When Mr. Sung turns his back on them, Yoon tears off the page she’s been scribbling on, wads it into a ball, and tosses it onto Jinhee’s desk. In Yoon’s blue cursive it says: Happy taken. No idea why it took months to happen. Was kind of getting attached to him.
Jinhee folds it into a small square and stashes it between the leaflet and the table of contents page. She begins to copy what’s on the blackboard.
On the moving day, Jinhee stands in the parking lot of her apartment, thumbing through her old textbooks before dropping them into the piles of glossy magazines. When she opens her history textbook, a folded paper falls from it. Happy taken. For a moment, Jinhee thinks how often Yoon talked about that silly, imaginary dog, in how much detail: its unkempt grey coat, bushy tail, blue leather collar that it kept chewing on, inscribed letters HAPPY getting jagged closer and closer to APP over time. Jinhee returns the folded paper inside the book and lets it land atop the pile, before heading back home. Against the 26-foot truck stands her bicycle. An acquaintance of her father is supposed to pick it up later because she’s moving to a bigger city where it’s not safe to ride a bicycle. After a moment of hesitation, Jinhee climbs on the saddle.
The road dividing rows of brick houses feels smooth under the wheels, and Jinhee dashes past several lines of houses, slowing down only at the corners. Cars parked butt to headlight, kids lapping at popsicles on the steps with the doors to their houses ajar, a spectacularly bejeweled woman with grocery bags in both hands, a feral cat napping against a telegraph pole, everything passes in flashes of strikingly vivid impressions. At the sixth or seventh corner, Jinhee screeches to a halt, and returns the way she’s come. A faded orange house with lime green doors. A grey house with a flat roof, every window a braced mouth afraid to smile. There. She abandons her bicycle on the ground. There, between two houses, is a narrow alleyway, more than two bathtubs deep. From the brink Jinhee stares down: shreds of newspapers, a deflated soccer ball, beer cans, what could have been leftover foods now indiscernible in muck, a greying sweater unspooled in a few spots. When she’s about to step away, something catches her eye. In that small landfill, from under the wet newspapers, a chewed-down leather strap peeks out. Barely blue, on the verge of turning grey.
Jinhee sits on the brink. Swings her legs over, as if to dive in. Somewhere in the distance that feels like dreamless sleep a dog yelps, and the neighbor canines go into a barking frenzy.
Suphil Lee Park is the author of Present Tense Complex, winner of the Marystina Santiestevan Prize, forthcoming in 2021. She graduated from New York University with a BA in English and from the University of Texas at Austin with an MFA in Poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bennington Review, Colorado Review, jubilat, Ploughshares, and The Malahat Review, among others. You can find more about her at: suphil-lee-park.com.